A poster developed by New Media students at Sask. Polytechnic. Photo courtesy Facebook, Lori Campbell.

The University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture has named Big River First Nation woman Sylvia McAdam as the winner of this year’s National Margolese Design for Living Prize.

The selection process for the prize is highly guarded: the selection committee and nominations are confidential to ensure “nominations are fairly and frankly assessed without outside influence.”

Considering that McAdam didn’t even know she was in the running for the prize, she said she was in “disbelief, shock” when she found out she won.

In recent years the prize has gone to engineers and architects, but this year the selection committee opted for McAdam, who is a grassroots organizer as one of the founders of Idle No More.

This fall McAdam has been active in opposing clearcutting on her family’s ancestral land.

Earlier this year, she was a part of a group called One House Many Nations that built and delivered a self-sustaining mini home to a homeless man on McAdam’s home reserve. She said that effort wouldn’t have been possible without a number of people volunteering and donating to a GoFundMe campaign.

McAdam said she, too, is homeless right now but is lucky to have support that many other First Nations people lack. She is living with her brother as she teaches and facilitates indigenous wellness courses near Edmonton, and plans to use the prize money of $50,000 to get a small home for herself.

“Oh I’m absolutely getting a mini home. Totally off the grid, it’ll be located on the land. I am, yeah, absolutely thrilled. I will have a home,” she said.

In a news release, the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture said the committee was impressed with McAdam’s role in “passing on the teachings of Cree elders” through the written word and through lectures streamed on YouTube. They saw in McAdam a “peaceful yet forceful determination to bring about positive change.”

The school’s communications manager Markus Pickartz said McAdam’s work tackles “some fairly intractable problems that affect Canadians more broadly,” particularly when it comes to housing.

Pickartz pointed to housing crises on First Nations reserves that have made national headlines in recent years, but also to British Columbia where First Nations people struggle to find housing.

Pickartz said the school will work with McAdam to plan a ceremony for early 2017 to acknowledge her win. She said she wants the ceremony to double as a fundraiser for One House Many Nations.